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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Google Leaders Pitch Pentagon on Internal Accelerator

Neil Degrasse Tyson, ... ]

Neil Degrasse Tyson, ... ] // Richard Shotwell/AP

Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt isn’t exactly a regular at Pentagon strategic meetings, but on Tuesday he and other tech heavyweights delivered a clear message to the Defense Department: Update your culture.

In the fifth public meeting of the Defense Innovation Board—an advisory committee established under Defense Secretary Ash Carter and populated by Schmidt, LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman, astronomer and television host Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others—the group recommended that the Pentagon consider an internal technology accelerator, among other suggestions.

During the meeting, hosted at the Crystal City branch of the 1776 startup accelerator, members discussed the merits of a culture that might reward employees for having good ideas and allow them to carry those ideas through prototyping and deployment.

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Government buying often rewards products sold at the lowest cost, Google Capital Vice President and board member Milo Medin said during the meeting. “I actually think if you optimize for speed, you’ll get cost as a byproduct,” he explained, sketching out an idea for a program that could accelerate technological ideas to the prototyping stage.

The Defense Department already has teams dedicated to quick turnarounds and minimum viable products, including the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, and the Defense Digital Service, an offshoot of the White House tech team originally formed to salvage Healthcare.gov. But those groups work “outside the process,” while an accelerator might be more integrated into the Defense Department’s workflow, Medin said,

“What we’re trying to figure out is, is it a new [organization] or an existing [organization] where we can identify, and prioritize, a small number of the most critical warfighting problems,” he explained. Those problems would be identified by the deputy secretary, and the Pentagon could then assemble cross-functional teams to attack them. “That’s what we do in industry.”

Other recommendations included a system for an “idea elevator,” pitched by board member and Code for America Founder Jen Pahlka, who called into the meeting. Observed from the outside, the Defense Department’s prevailing culture seems to “make everybody interchangeable” and discourages employees from pursuing ideas that might improve the Pentagon, she explained. A better system might let an employee with a promising idea to get “executive sponsorship” to go through a development process. A panel of five to seven people might be responsible for identifying which ideas warrant sponsorship.

The innovation board also proposed creating a new personnel system specifically for people specializing in science, technology, engineering and math because there is “currently no sufficient, formal process in place to recruit, train, develop and sustain a core workforce with these skill sets,” Marne Levine, chief operating officer at Instagram, said during the meeting. (Levine had also called in.)

Together, the recommendations are intended to flesh out ways the Pentagon can “reward somebody who would be a career innovator,” deGrasse Tyson said during the meeting. If faced with an employee “who has innovative thoughts, the question then is, ‘What do you do with that person?’”

The innovation board’s suggestions are a “strong start” but are “not sufficient” to truly transform the Pentagon, its chariman Schmidt said at the meeting. The next step is to make recommendations clearer, outline exactly where the Pentagon should take action, and also to encourage more focus on technologies like autonomy, artificial intelligence and software.

The challenge, he explained, is shifting from a “risk-averse culture, in the planning sense, to a risk-seeking culture.”

“It’s not a courage problem,” he added.

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